Eight Glasses of Pinot Noir

willakenzie pierre leon.jpgIn front of us are four glasses of pinot noir, which we are trying to rank. The wines are all excellent, but there are clear differences. The group arrives at a unanimous decision ranking wine #2 in first place.

The next day we are at it again and once more in front of us are four glasses of pinot noir. After more debate than the day before wine #4 is a unanimous choice as our favorite with number #2 a close second.

 These eight glasses of pinot noir were in fact not eight different pinot noir wines, but just four bottles of wine with the second tasting repeating the first after the wines had twenty-four hours of air.

To make matters even more confusing, not only was there not eight different wines, there were not four different wines. In reality there were only two wines. The glasses held the following wines:

  1. 2003 Willakenzie Aliette Pinot Noir, Cork-Free (screw cap)
  2. 2003 Willakenzie Aliette Pinot Noir (cork finish)
  3. 2003 Willakenzie Pierre Léon Pinot Noir, Cork-Free (screw cap)
  4. 2003 Willakenzie Pierre Léon Pinot Noir (cork finish)

What made these two wines four in our blind tasting was not the wine, but the closure. Oregon’s Willakenzie Estate bottled the exact same wines under two different closures in 2003 and in the process turned two wines into four because there are clear differences between the wines under cork and those with screw caps.  It is interesting to note that the clear winner of each of our tastings was cork finished.

On the first day, the screw cap finished wines were clearly brighter and fruiter, but the 2003 cork finished Aliette seemed more complex and aromatic. It was my theory that the differences between the wines would become less distinct after being exposed to oxygen overnight, but it was not the case. The cork finished 2003 Pierre Léon, which was closed and tannic the first day, positively sang the next - a really lovely wine. To prove the final judgment of  our group (winemakers all) the two cork finished bottles were empty, while a good third remained in both screw cap finished bottles, which by then had been unveiled.

Certainly there is not enough data here to say screw caps are inferior or superior to corks, but it does raise some interesting questions. One of the big debates with screw caps is how much oxygen needs to be in solution when the wine is bottled. The theory is you need to leave more oxygen in the wine than you do with corks as the screw cap is much less permeable to oxygen than cork. This issue would indeed change the way the wine tastes. Another variable is the tasters themselves. We are more accustomed to cork finished wines and our palates may just be tuned to that channel. However, one thing was very clear: the wines were different.

There was one other thing that was very clear - Willakenzie made some very fine pinot noir in the difficult 2003 vintage, they stand out for balance and restraint in a year that had few such wines and I would happily pull the cork (or unscrew) a bottle of these excellent wines at any time.